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Serious Prank in Scholarly World...

Tito Claudio

Los Angeles Times   Monday May 27, 1996
Home Edition
Metro, Page 4
Type of Material: Editorial

"The pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity. .J.J. "
So begins a passage from a gibberish-filled parody that Social Text, a leading social science journal, was hoodwinked into publishing as a serious scholarly work. The writer, who revealed his hoax recently in another journal, was New York physicist Alan Sokal.
Those of us still harboring resentment against impenetrable college textbooks will delight in Sokal's clever satire, but he insists that his mission was "utterly serious": to show how the journal's editors, like so many others in the field of cultural studies, had become lost in a postmodernist haze so thick that they couldn't tell fact from nonsense.
Sokal succeeds in showing that the editors either embrace some academically disreputable ideas or that they failed to see through his fashionably opaque prose. At one point in his Social Text essay, for instance, he posits the far-out argument that by studying morphogenesis, the way living organisms develop, one can somehow figure out quantum gravity.
Sokal also demonstrates that cultural studies may not be advancing at a breakneck pace, for the comprehensible pitch he wrote to entice the journal's editors into publishing his piece simply reiterate a notion proposed by Thomas Kuhn in 1962: that "scientific 'knowledge,' far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it."
That both liberals and conservatives have attacked cultural studies would seem to give the discipline credibility as a neutral player in the academic game. Indeed, in response to Sokal's satire, Stanley Fish, the publisher of Social Text, insists that his field is interested only in dispassionate inquiry. Moreover, while Sokal sees the discipline as an assault on science, Fish maintains it "neither dispute[s] the accomplishments of science nor [denies] the existence or power of scientific procedure."
The field of cultural studies may be sluggish in making progress, it may need to bone up on Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" and it may have wasted too much energy on such pursuits as studying the genesis of Tupperware. But given the cultural misunderstandings that continue to surround us at home and abroad, surely we can see the importance of its mission, as defined by Fish: "To understand how perceptions and procedures, languages and lifestyles emerge from a welter of disciplinary competition to become accepted tradition."

Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times, 1996.

CLAUDIO, TITO, Serious Prank in Scholarly World; Physicist's hoax essay attacks the field of cultural studies; Home Edition., Los Angeles Times, 05-27-1996, pp B-4.

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